In our research into how cultured meat fits within the idea of traditional meat we stumbled upon a problem.
We did not know what consumers consider to be meat.
The question what meat is, seems simple.
But when you start thinking about it, it is not that simple. The Oxford dictionary for example defines meat as flesh and flesh as involving muscles. The same dictionary also contains a definition of organ meat which does not involve muscles and is thus inconsistent with the definition of meat.
After some discussion on how to define meat properly, we decided to go out to consumers and ask them their idea about what meat is. The results of these interviews were published in the scientific journal Appetite.
We interviewed 30 MSc or PhD students in our university, 10 from the Netherlands, 10 from China and 10 from Ethiopia. We used these different respondents to get a grasp of what is universal to meat and what may be culturally determined. First, we asked them mention anything that came to mind when thinking about meat. Second they were asked to sort a pile of cards containing words into three groups. A first group of words that were definitely meat, a second that were definitely not meat, and a third where they doubted whether it is meat or not. Then they were asked to write a brief text about what meat they considered eatable and finally they were asked to mention anything that came to mind when thinking about cultured meat.
All participants agreed that meat has to come from a dead animal. Which body parts and which organs make for meat differed between participants. There were also differences to what dishes and processed products would still be meat. Particularly Chinese and Dutch participants considered a range of organs and processed products as meat, while Ethiopians tended to limit meat to unprocessed flesh.
We found more subtle distinctions what animals provide meat and to whom. Ethiopians, for example, mentioned that camels are not a meat source to them, although they can imagine camel meat is eaten in other cultures. A Chinese participant distinguished between dogs bred for meat and companion dogs, the latter being definitely not meat! Dutch participants indicated that to there is a step to go from merely a dead animal such as road kill to meat. The dead animal needs to be properly butchered to become meat. Whether some body-part of an animal is meat may even depend on the animal. An Ethiopian participant said that chicken skin is part of the meat, while the skin of goat and sheep is not meat at all but leather to be used for clothing instead.
In addition we found that not all meats are eatable even if they are meat. Meats that are culturally or religiously taboo cannot be eaten. Emotional attachment, or revulsion towards the animal may also make meats from those animals uneatable.
Together this shows that the idea of meat may sound simple, but it is not. The idea of meat has flesh of a dead animal at its core. But other body parts of some animal may also be meat, and some animals are just not a source of meat. The boundary of where meat ends and something else starts is not as clear as we may think at first.
We now compare this to how people look at cultured meat. Our participants considered cultured meat to have many properties of meat, but also to have properties that do not fit the idea of meat. But our participants also consider cultured meat a futuristic high tech development. This brings in all kinds of considerations about high tech food. Many participants thought cultured meat to be unnatural and fake compared to “real” meat. This puts cultured meat somewhere in the area where meat becomes something else. Understanding what triggers cultured meat to fall within the idea of meat, or what pushes it outside will be important for the success or failure of the product.
The full reference of the paper is (subscription required): Bekker, G. A., Tobi, H., & Fischer, A. R. H. (2017). Meet meat: An explorative study on meat and cultured meat as seen by Chinese, Ethiopians and Dutch. Appetite, 114, 82-92. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2017.03.009
About Arnout Fischer
Arnout Fischer is associate professor in the Marketing and Consumer Behaviour group. He studies consumer response to new technologies in food products and production. He thinks that consumer response to food innovation can only be understood if we realise that food is very special. Food is that special because all consumers have very much social and cultural knowledge what food should (or should not) be; and food consumption is very emotional.